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Origins of the Violin - The Rabab

The origins of the violin are uncertain and open to debate, but it is generally agreed the instrument we know today in western music as the violin had its origin in the Arabic rabab. The rabab had two strings made of silk attached to an endpin and strung to pegs used to tune the strings in fifths. The rabab was fretless with a pear shaped body made of gourd and a long neck. The instrument was held on the lap and played using a bow with resin rubbed on its string. No images or examples exist of this instrument but it is described in documents dating from the late 9th century.


Arabic Rabab
The Arabic RABABAH or Arab fiddle is the earliest known bowed instrument and the parent of the medieval European rebec. The instrument was first mentioned in the 10th century, became prominent in medieval and later in Arab art music. In medieval times the word rabab was used for any bowed instrument. In China the rebab is known as rawap and very popular among the uighur, the uzbek and the tajik. Throughout Central Asia the instrument is inlaid with mother in pearl geometric designs.

The rabab has a membrane belly made of animal skin or wood and one, two or three strings. There is normally no fingerboard, the strings being stopped by the player's fingers. Body shapes vary. Pear- and boat-shaped rababs were particularly common and influenced the rebec. Rectangular bodies are mainly played by Bedouin musicians. But Flat round and trapezoidal are also found. Throughout the Middle East and Africa, as well as Central Asia, northern India, and Southeast Asia, the word rabab or a derivative name refers to a spike fiddle, one that has a small round or cylindrical body and a narrow neck.

It has a easily recognizable rich thick sound - a combination of high and low tones. 
The rabab reached Europe by two routes. A pear-shaped variety was adopted in the Byzantine Empire in the 9th century as the lira. A boat-shaped variety, still played in northern Africa, was introduced by the Arabs to Spain in the 11th century. 

The instrument is still plays a dominant role in the music of Morocco where it has an important function in arabo-andalouse music and is used by street musicians as well. The lithograph shows an Arabo-andalousian rebâb. The main instruments used in arabo-andalouse music are the tar - a sort of small tambourine - sometimes a darbuqa - a funnel-shaped drum made of clay - and three types of string instruments - the rebab, the kemanjah (a violin) and the 'oud (a lute). Arabo-andalouse music traces its origins to Abu Hassan Ali Ben Nafi, known as Ziriab. This famous singer and composer fled from Baghdad to Moorish spain in in the 9th century. His success at the court of Baghdad led to injurious rumors and intrigue spread by his teacher who became jealous. Ziriab was the founder of Moroccan classical music, essentially the Andalusian music of the 10th to 15th centuries. It is extremely complicated in musical structure and has unique rhythms.



The rebab is currently played from the Maghreb to as far as Indonesia and Malaysia. Right a Moroccan rebaba player of the 20-th century, under 2 rebaba players of the 13 th century. Remarkable is that the style of footwear of the 13 th century musicians on the miniature of the Cantigas of Alphonso-X, Alphonso the Wise, is still common in nowadays Morocco under the name babushes.

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